On May 1, 1914, the Socialist colony of Llano Del Rio was founded in the Antelope Valley, about 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles, in the southern edge of the Mojave Desert.
It lasted about three and half years, and at its peak over a thousand people lived there.
On a recent weekend, a couple dozen Southern California artists paid tribute to the centennial of this experiment in communal living with a project called “Squaring the Circle.” The day-long event included film screenings, performance art, and music.
One of the artists, Christine Suarez, danced in the stone ruins of what was once a house. She slowly swayed a thin veil of white tulle around her, as her collaborator, Alexx Shilling, read from a letter written by a Llano settler.
“We can’t achieve the impossible. We are still under the thumb of capitalism. Our colony is a corporation,” the letter read. “But instead of using it for parasitical advantage, the benefits go to us, the workers.”
Suarez adapted some of the letters based on research and correspondence she discovered.
Artist Leora Wien re-imagined a May Day ceremony by installing a maypole. Several participants grabbed colorful ribbons and danced in circles around the pole, weaving the fabric into a tight pattern.
“They celebrated May Day, which has become a day for workers’ rights, for advocating for things like the eight-hour work week,” Wien said. “There is archival footage of the May Day festival with a maypole, so that was the inspiration.”
Job Harriman, a lawyer and Socialist leader, was the founder of Llano Del Rio. In 1900 he ran for Vice President of the United States along with Eugene Debs on the Socialist Party of America ticket. He later ran for Los Angeles mayor twice, but lost because he defended the widely reviled McNamara Brothers, the union activists who pleaded guilty to bombing the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, which killed 21 people.
After his narrow defeat, Harriman convinced members of the Young People’s Socialist League, or YPSLs, and other progressives and farmers to start a self-sufficient community in the desert.
At the time, the average wage for skilled labor was $2.50 a day, and workers labored 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Llano Del Rio promised better wages and working conditions – $4.00 a day, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
“That was kind of revolutionary,” said historian Paul Greenstein. He co-wrote “Bread & Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles,” a book about Llano Del Rio. Llano settlers built a printing press, planted fruit orchards, alfalfa and raised dairy cows, chickens and rabbits. There was even a fish hatchery. But it wasn’t all hard work.
“They had a mandolin orchestra. They had the best baseball team in the Antelope Valley,” Greenstein said. “They had weekly dances, which were widely attended by everybody in the area.”
For the “Squaring the Circle” event, Greenstein set up a canvas tent, much like those the Llano inhabitants lived in, and displayed old photographs and copies of “The Western Comrade,” a Socialist newspaper edited by Harriman. Greenstein also brought along a wax cylinder player, a model that would’ve been used a hundred years ago. And he brought a working 1913 Metz roadster, and offered people rides around the site.
Having a car would’ve come in handy at Llano Del Rio. The colony was spread out over several miles, with plans for further expansion. Founder Job Harriman tapped a radical feminist architect named Alice Constance Austin to design the city.
“She had this whole crazy idea about underground systems, where laundry would be put down the chute, and it would be taken away, and meals would be delivered underground,” said artist and organizer Cindy Rehm. “It’d be this way that women would be liberated from working in the kitchen.”
Austin’s plans were never carried out. The community rejected what they saw as concrete prison-like buildings. Instead they lived in tents or adobe houses, most of which were destroyed by storms, leaving only the remains of a cistern, a hotel, a dairy farm and a grain silo. That’s where electronic artist Stephen Fiche performed this concert of echoing ambient music.
Llano Del Rio declared bankruptcy in 1918. The commune folded for a few reasons. Internal strife over the political structure of the colony. A lack of reliable water from Big Rock Creek, the stream that flowed from the San Gabriel Mountains to the colony. The outbreak of World War I meant young men from the colony were drafted, while good-paying work became available in Los Angeles.
In 1918, some 60 families boarded a train to Louisiana and formed New Llano, which lived on for another 20 years.
“We’re looking at the ruins of the colony now,” said Dydia DeLyser, a professor of geography and a Llano expert. “But it represents a time of real hope, and the earnest and sincere efforts of 1,000 or maybe 1,500 people who lived here, who sought to build a bright and different future.”
Which is a lot like Los Angeles today – a place where people still move to start over, pursue their dreams, and create a bit of paradise in the desert.